Thursday, July 07, 2011

falked up

the controversy over the below cartoon raises a question i've mulled over before: what is the appropriate way to critically depict israel in a political cartoon?

richard falk of the UN human rights counsel included the cartoon in a blog post. when he was accused of posting an anti-semitic cartoon, he removed the image from the post (see the current version here) and apologized, claiming that he did not notice the anti-semitic symbolism when he posted the cartoon. that hasn't placated UN watch, who seems determined to have falk's head roll.

personally, i believe falk when he says that he did not see the cartoon as anti-semitic when he posted it. falk himself is jewish, which doesn't rule out antisemitism but does make it a lot less likely. also, it took me a few looks to see what the fuss was about. the key is the hat that the dog is wearing. the hat has been described as a kippah, but it looked more like a metal helmet to me at first glance. what i didn't notice until it was pointed out was the star of david printed on it. it's pretty small and not obvious at all. the arabic caption (العدالة العمياء) says "blind justice", not an overtly anti-semitic phrase. when i first saw the cartoon, i took it to mean that the u.s. was pissing all over justice. but if you see the star of david, then its meaning changes. either the dog is the u.s., presumably controlled by jews and/or israel as symbolized by the star of david on its head, or the dog is israel, functioning as america's attack dog even as it pisses on lady justice.

the key to seeing it as antisemitic is the star of david, which either symbolizes jews or israel, depending on how you read the cartoon. if it symbolizes jews, then it is straight-up antisemitic. but what if the star just indicates israel? does that make a difference? the star of david is a religious symbol, but it also appears on the israeli flag. which means in that sense it is also a political symbol. political symbols are fair game in a political cartoon, and political cartoons often depict countries as animals to make their point in order to tell the reader which country the animal stands for, cartoonists often label the animals with national symbols, like bits from the symbolized country's flag to make the symbolism clear.

so does the fact that a star of david appears on the israel flag make that religious symbol fair game if it is used to stand in for israel the country? i'm not sure if it does. and if it does, wouldn't that also make the shahada printed on the saudi flag fair game too? i doubt if many muslims would see it that way.

i should also add that i have followed the work of emad hajjaj, the cartoonist, for several years. hajjaj pens his cartoons under the pseudonym of "abu mahjoob" and i have posted abu mahjoob cartoons in posts here before. you may also noticed a link to the mahjoob site under the "fun!" heading to the right. i also have the abu mahjoob app on my iphone. for the past few years i've been looking at each cartoon of the day on that site to practice my arabic and to see if i can figure out what the cartoon is referring to. some of them have crossed the line for me, but most of them don't, certainly not enough to convince me that mahjoob is an antisemitic site, though antisemitism is not completely absent there either. even when they do cross the line into antisemitism i still find them to be an interesting window into the political culture of jordan where the cartoonist is from. the star of david does come up quite a lot to symbolize israel, as does the statue of liberty for the u.s. (see e.g. this cartoon about wikileaks). mahjoob has a habit using a country's flag or its symbols to make a statement about current events (see e.g. this one about the government crackdown against protesters in syria which spoofs the syrian flag).

the long and short of it is that while i think falk made a serious mistake, i understand how he could have missed the antisemitism in the cartoon he posted. which is why i don't think he should lose his job over this. but realistically, i don't see how he won't.

(via memeorandum)